by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Tomorrow and Sunday, the Homestead hosts the tenth edition of its “Ticket to the Twenties” festival. Much of the exhibit material over the weekend will deal with La Casa Nueva, the home built by the Temple family from 1922 to 1927, and this post elaborates on a particularly interesting theme regarding the dwelling.
As noted in a recent post about the unusual programmatic architectural gem here at the Homestead known as the “Tepee,” the rise and fall of the Temple family fortune during the 1920s is a remarkable story, especially given the many similarities it bore to the dramatic reverses experienced by the Temple and Workman families a half-century before in the 1870s.
The dramatic visual representation of that story of ups and downs is vividly reflected in the story of La Casa Nueva, planned and built by the Temple family to be their home for perpetuity (or as close to that as possible!), but which turned out to be owned for less than five years after completion.
When the building was conceived following the family’s summer 1922 vacation in Mexico, the Temples were still receiving significant royalties from the oil wells near Montebello that were first brought into production a half decade previously.
Walter P. Temple had also newly embarked on a series of real estate projects in Alhambra, San Gabriel, and El Monte, with other work to follow within a year or so in downtown Los Angeles and, most notably, his Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928).
So, when construction began shortly after that Mexican trip, the Temples were at the pinnacle of their wealth and were launched into the building of the prototypical “dream house.” Then comes the problem with “the best laid plans . . .”
Laura Gonzalez Temple, who was said by family members to have been a major inspiration and source for designs for La Casa Nueva, was diagnosed with colon cancer, essentially untreatable nearly a century ago. The illness moved quickly and she passed away, just a few days after Christmas 1922. Her children ranged in age from 12 to 17 and any of us who’ve experienced the loss of a member of the immediately family readily understands the impact that her death had on a tight-knit family.
In fact, construction on the home halted for a time as the Temples pondered what to do. When it was decided to resume building, it was decided to dedicate the home in Laura’s memory. A ceremony held on the first anniversary of her passing included a blessing of the structure by Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell (who did the same for the mausoleum at El Campo Santo cemetery over two years before) and the installation of a plaque adjacent to the front entry.
Walter Temple sold the family’s main residence in Alhambra and moved to the Homestead full-time in 1924, while work at La Casa Nueva continued. That year, architect Roy Seldon Price was hired to complete the project, but had many changes in mind.
Many of them were excellent ideas, including having an ornate carved plaster surround installed at the front entrance, necessitating the move of the dedication plaque to the corner of the house, where it remains. Price also removed the stairs in the Main Hall, which went up the center and branched off east and west, and installed a new set of wrap-around stairs that significantly opened up the room. The architect also insisted on converting the plain flat roof over the rear wings to beautiful patios with excellent views of the Puente Hills.
Yet, as the family joked, the architect’s invoices matched his last name. Just as his expensive, though impressive, changes were being made, Temple was pouring money in his real estate work and the output at Montebello was slowing. There were other oil projects throughout greater Los Angeles and out of state, but none had the spectacular success of the Temple lease at Montebello.
In 1926, as the construction of La Casa Nueva was in its fifth year, the newly formed Temple Estate Company, which handled all of his real estate projects outside of Temple City (the Temple Townsite Company managed that venture), Temple and his partners, attorney George H. Woodruff, business manager Milton Kauffman, and Alhambra sheep rancher Sylvester DuPuy, agreed to take out over a half million dollars in bonds to finance oil and real estate projects. Three years later, another $200,000 were issued as debts mounted.
Late in 1927, La Casa Nueva was finally completed. The only residents of the house, though, were Temple and Modesta (Maud) Romero Bassity, hired to care for Laura Temple during her battle with cancer and who stayed on to run the household at the Homestead. Maud and Walter then entered into a romantic relationship that lasted nearly fifteen years until Temple’s death in late 1938.
As for the four surviving Temple children, they were away at boarding schools for most of the year. While all the children stayed local initially, they gradually went to schools further from home.
From 1919 to 1926, excepting a semester at the California Institute of Technology, eldest child Thomas attended the prep school and then college at Santa Clara University near San Jose. From 1925 to 1929, Agnes, the sole daughter, attended Dominican College, an all-girls school in San Rafael, north of San Francisco. From 1924 to 1926, younger children, Walter, Jr. and Edgar attended the Belmont Academy, south of San Francisco. During those stints, visits were generally at spring break, summer vacation, Thanksgiving week, and the winter break around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Her brothers, however, were sent back to the Temple family’s home state of Massachusetts in 1926. Eldest child, Thomas, attended Harvard Law School, while the younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar went to Dummer (yes, Dummer–named for a colonial governor) Academy northeast of Boston. Because of the distance across the continent, the Temple sons only returned to the Homestead for summer vacations and spent weekends and holidays with cousins or friends, with the notable exception of jaunts to Canada (care to guess why during Prohibition?) during winter breaks.
What this meant was that for the two full years after La Casa Nueva was completed, this being 1928 and 1929, Walter Temple and Maud Bassity were its sole occupants. Agnes visited probably about a third of the year, but her brothers only spent less than a quarter at the home. In spring 1930, the family vacated the home, which was being leased to a military school occupying the Homestead. Just over two years later, in July 1932, a bank foreclosure led to the loss of the ranch. The loss was so devastating that the Temples left furniture, decorative pieces, blueprints of the house, and even photographs behind and never returned to claim them.
This begs the question: when is a house not a home? In other words, the dwelling may exist, but if five-sixths of the family were not there at all or most of the time, how much of a home can there be in the building?
I well remember several occasions when Walter, Jr., the sole Temple child to have lived long enough to see the Homestead become a museum, told me that, while he appreciated the opportunity to receive a good education at the several boarding schools he attended for twelve years, he also regretted the lost time that he could have spent with his family.
Sometimes having wealth, or what remains of it, can’t compensate for that time. Walter Temple unquestionably loved his children and sincerely believed that sending them to boarding schools was for their long-term benefit. It was also something his parents did for their older children until the family fortune was lost in the traumatic failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876. In fact, Temple sent his children to Bay Area and Massachusetts schools just as his parents had done.
Increasingly, in recent years, on those rare occasions when I conduct tours, I talk about the death of Laura Temple and the extended absences of the children and I ask visitors whether La Casa Nueva was a house or a home?
Often, we get into very interesting discussions about the difference and what the effects of loss and absence are on a family. After all, many of us have family histories that have some relatable connection to what happened to the Temples.
As I said at the beginning of the post, the Temples thought, of course, that La Casa Nueva would be their house for a long time. They could have had no inkling that Laura would die so soon after it was started, that it would take so long to finish, and that it would be lost so quickly. It’s a compelling story, especially given the striking similarities to what happened fifty years before, and it’s one we will continue to reexamine, refine and discuss with visitors in ways that, hopefully, they can relate to and empathize with.
If you’re coming to “Ticket to the Twenties” and are visiting the Workman House and La Casa Nueva, take some time to pop over to the Tepee, which is rarely open to visitors, and check it out. There’ll be some displays and discussion from and with me about “programmatic architecture” (buildings in the shapes of things), the Temple family’s financial ups and downs, and about La Casa Nueva. Hope to see you there!